British Composers Conduct & Other Rarities

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Dutton's British Composers Conduct & Other Rarities consists of a program of historical recordings dating from 1927-1952 in excellent overall sound in a number of twentieth century English works, not one of which will be readily familiar to most. Regrettably, British Composers Conduct & Other Rarities doesn't get off to a good start. Granville Bantock was in his salad days when he recorded his Two Heroic Ballads and Two Herbridean Sea-Poems in 1945. The Heroic Ballads are predictable orchestral compositions so monolithic in style they almost resemble American Indianist literature. The Hebridean Sea-Poems are cinematic in sweep, but emotionally empty. The tone poem Sennen Cove is the most ambitious symphonic effort of light music composer and jazz pianist Billy Mayerl; while it has a nice opening, ultimately it winds up in the Music Hall. The last part of the disc, with works by John St. Anthony Johnson, Hubert Clifford, and Montague Phillips, leaves a similar impression; this section also has the worst sound quality on the disc, still not so bad.

However, the good stuff is "good" indeed, and rather far off the beaten track, even for English music. Norman O'Neill's 1909 incidental music for Maeterlinck's play The Blue Bird is impressionist-tinged British light music at its best, not to mention beautifully recorded for the 1920s. From a rare BBC Broadcast disc we are treated to two excellent, if slightly distorted, excerpts from ill-fated composer Walter Leigh's incidental music from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Judging from the ballet music from his opera Judith, conductor Eugene Goossens sounds like a composer whose work would sustain deeper investigation -- his 1929 excerpt is like a cross between late Debussy and early Stravinsky. William Walton's incidental music from The Boy David is heard from records used on tour with J.M. Barrie's play of that name in 1936. Sadly, only one of these discs has been recovered, and as the score to The Boy David has disappeared, what we hear is the only remnant left behind from a grievous loss to twentieth century music.

For every piece in this survey that makes one feel good about British music, there is in equal measure of dated, humdrum music that reinforces the old standard of British concert fare as hoary, trifling poppycock. This may well reflect the taste of gramophone and radio rather than that of the most gifted British composers of the day. Nevertheless, the word "rarities" is the operative one here, and some connoisseurs of historical fare might well not be able to resist these offerings. Dutton's sound is as good as it's likely to get for such material; it appears they have figured out how to tame the noisy beast that is the British 78rpm record.

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